Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Early review of Luminarium

Sometime later this summer, Soho Press will publish Alex Shakar's new novel, Luminarium. I read this in its penultimate draft and really loved it, and so I'm eagerly waiting to read it in its final form. You may be sure, dear reader, that I will post about it as soon as it arrives in print.

In the meantime, I'm happy to see that strong reviews are already coming in (which is funny to me, actually, because with literary critical books of the kind I write it can take a year or more after publication to get reviewed).

Anyway, I'm pasting here, in its entirety, a review of Luminarium that recently appeared a few weeks ago in Publishers Weekly. You can also click through the hyperlink to read it in its natural online habitat.

Luminarium Alex Shakar. Soho, $25 (448p) ISBN 978-1-56947-975-9

Shakar follows up his well-received The Savage Girl with this penetrating look at the uneasy intersection of technology and spirituality. As the five-year anniversary of 9/11 looms, 30-something New Yorker Fred Brounian struggles with the impending death of his hospitalized twin brother, George; the unscrupulous buyout of his Second Life–like company; and the scientific experiments he undergoes that are designed to induce spiritual insight. While Fred's coming-to-terms with George's situation makes for traditional drama, Shakar's blend of the business of cyberspace and the science of enlightenment distinguishes the novel as original and intrepid: Urth Inc., Fred and George's company, is essentially swallowed by megacorporation Armation, which intends to use Urth's technology to build virtual training environments for the military. Meanwhile, Fred is an emotionally vulnerable guinea pig in Mira Egghart's neurological experiments to create a "spiritual odyssey, encoded as easily as a few songs on an iPod." As George nears his end, Fred falls for Mira, learns to meditate, and pursues the perpetrator of a vast cyberscheme threatening to undo both him and Urth. Shakar's prose is sharp and hilarious, engendering the reader's faith in the novel's philosophical ambitions. Part Philip K. Dick, part Jonathan Franzen, this radiant work leads you from the unreal to the real so convincingly that you begin to let go of the distinction.


Well all right then. Add that to your amazon wish list for later!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Convocation 2011

I'll post some pictures later--when I get them from the photographers--but I thought I might post here about our annual convocation ceremony, held this year on May 14th at Foellinger Auditorium. [Added on 6/20: a couple of pictures!]

As always, I love these ceremonies: faculty looking slightly goofy in robes, but happy nonetheless to see their students; students, also in robes, full of well-earned pride; and families--often multiple generations--celebrating accomplishments, too. Corny as it may be to say so, this is for me one of the moments that puts everything in perspective: it puts a cap (a mortarboard?) on the academic year and reminds me what all of the teaching we do is ultimately about.

I'd like to congratulate this year's graduates here, and to honor the undergraduate students who earned departmental honors (distinction or high distinction) as listed in the ceremony's program: Gabriela Asrow, Julia Bassewitz, Kathleen Blair, Justine Chan, Elizabeth Cohon, Danielle DeFranco, Erin Dittmer, Simon Fields, Marcos Hernandez, Lauren Hise, Shannon Jilek, Kathleen Kinsella, Josette Lorig, Lisa Malvin, Kendra Muntz, Quinn Myers, Valerie O'Brien, Jaqueline Patton, Andrew Rockway, Brenda Rodriguez, Adam Sadik, Amelia Wallrich. I'm singling these students out here not only because they have achieved distinction (though they have--only about 10% of our 2011 graduates appear on this list!), but because they have undertaken and completed a thesis project. This means that they have taken it upon themselves to do original research in some field of English studies. I can still remember from my own undergraduate days (in the 80s!) what that felt like: the challenge of adopting for the first time a new disposition towards knowledge, moving from classwork (where a professor sets the parameters of study) into a project where I was supposed to set the terms of engagement. This takes nerve, and the completion of a first such project really is something to celebrate.

Our convocation speaker this year was Dr. Lynn Hartmann, a 1970 graduate of our department and now a Professor of Oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota. I had met Dr. Hartmann a few years ago, when she returned to our campus as a recipient of a Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and I was struck at that time by the way she spoke about connections between the humane curiosity about life that is fed by a humanities-based liberal arts degree and her subsequent engagement with the lives and life experiences of her patients. You can get a sense of what I mean by reading a short biographical sketch she wrote up and published a few years back in the Journal of the American Medical Association called "The Octogenarian's Plan". So I was delighted that she agreed to speak to the class of 2011, and I thought she was wonderful.

We did not have the crisp, sunny day we hoped for, but the rain held off and we were able to mingle on the quad after the ceremony. This is one of my favorite parts of the event, actually, because I get to congratulate graduates and their proud families, to pose for pictures with students I've worked with, and generally to bask in the reflected warmth of everyone's good feelings. This last part of the event tends also to be a chance to meet the families of PhD students I've worked with who are preparing to leave town and take up new positions--and this year there were three PhDs in my own area who were there with their families and who are all now preparing to take up new jobs on the east coast.

Congratulations to all of our newly minted alums, and best of luck with whatever comes next!

Monday, May 9, 2011


For reasons that are not at all difficult to suss out, the academic job market has been unusually tight for the past few years: public institutions are impacted by state budgetary crises, and even some of the richest privates have faced reductions when their endowments have declined in value. This year seemed to be a bit better--I have not seen comprehensive statistics yet, but my impression is that this year's market, in English at least, saw a real uptick in the number of jobs advertised. But it is still a tough market to crack, in part because there is a lot of pent up demand after a couple of especially lean years. We ran a search this year, for instance, and had more than 350 applicants for one position, which means that there are a lot of qualified people out there applying for academic jobs.

In light of all this, I am very pleased with the success our PhDs have had on the market this year. To date, we have placed 17 people, including (at last count) 12 in tenure track positions and another 3-4 in the kind of prestigious and/or multi-year postdoctoral/visiting positions that can be a stepping stone to a good tenure track job down the line. Most of the credit for this, obviously, goes to our terrific grad students. Some of it goes, too, to Vicki Mahaffey, who was our placement officer this past year, and to Tony Pollock, the director of our grad program, who helps out with placement in myriad ways. In fact, I think our whole faculty should take some credit for the success of our grad students, since almost all of us will have taught some of the students who are moving on to pastures new in some capacity, and since many of us also participated in mock interviews and other events designed to help prepare grad students for the rigors of the job market. I know I'm not alone in feeling that every placement is a team victory.

I'd also like to think that this robust placement number reflects something of a sea-change in the academic marketplace since my own graduate student days (I got my PhD in 1993), with more and more departments looking to hire people who already have substantial track records of teaching and scholarship. It is almost always the case that PhDs from top public institutions like the University of Illinois graduate with more hands-on experience designing and teaching their own classes than do their counterparts at private institutions, and our students often have pre-doctoral publication records that also stack up well against anybody. So when somebody hires one of our students, what they are getting, in effect, is a sure thing: somebody who has already shown that they can do all aspects of the job.

Next Fall, former PhDs from our department will take up new tenure track positions at the following universities and colleges: Juniata College, Michigan State University, North Georgia College & State University, Penn State University-Erie, Quinnipiac University, Rider University, Syracuse University, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, University of Oregon, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and Virginia Commonwealth University. It makes me proud to know, as I do, that every one of these institutions will be very happy with the hires they've made.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The 'Invisible Hand' and British Fiction, 1818-1860

I am delighted to announce here the publication of Eleanor Courtemanche's new book, The 'Invisible Hand and British Fiction, 1818-1860: Adam Smith, Political Economy, and the Genre of Realism. Actually, the book been in print in Great Britain since April 12, but I learned this morning that Professor Courtemanche's advance copies have now arrived in the mail. This is my cue to post. Because, like I always say, nothing can be real until it arrives in central Illinois.

Published as part of Palgrave's impressive "Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture" series, The Invisible Hand and British Fiction argues that 19th-century realist novels, with their large-canvas portraiture of individuals within complex social systems, represent the best and most sophisticated response we have to the baffling experience of living in a world of global capitalism. This is a historical argument, about fiction and economic theory in the 19th century, but one that also makes 19th-century fiction speak to experiences that are our own. I admire this book for its powerful argument, but also for its lively and accessible prose. I think it has the potential, therefore, to be of interest to readers beyond its main, obvious audience of scholarly specialists: if only the invisible hand of the marketplace could somehow bring it to a wider audience's attention!

Here is the book description, pasted in from the press' website: "Some economic ideas are too interesting to be left to economists. This book argues that Adam Smith's metaphor of the 'invisible hand' – in which selfish economic actions are mysteriously transformed into aggregate social benefits in a capitalist economy – implies an entire spatial and temporal system in which the morality of any particular action can only be understood in the context of society as a whole. The 'Invisible Hand' and British Fiction argues that while political economists focused only on the optimistic outcomes of capitalist moral activity, Smith's model of ironic morality also influenced the work of novelists including Austen, Dickens, Martineau, Thackeray, Gaskell, and Eliot. Their realist novels represent the reconciliation between individual ignorance and systemic overview as much less stable than the economic synthesis, using omniscient narrative voices, multiple perspectives, and humor to depict a wide variety of possible outcomes. Smith shares with the realists a vision of modern society that is structured around a fragile trust in the benefits of unintended consequences."

Congratulations, Eleanor!

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